NetsDaily Off-Season Report #11

Every Sunday, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help take the edge off missing the playoffs, relying on the Nets’ beat reporters and others who have slipped interesting data into larger stories and blogs.

Youth must be served

Where to begin? The loss of RJ? The second greatest scorer in franchise history, one of the most popular players to ever wear the Nets uniform, gets sent to the NBA’s Siberia and he becomes a footnote to stories about the team’s quest for Lebron, its youth movement and its new marketability in Asian communities ‘round the world? How sad is that? Part of the reason is that Jefferson has yet to speak about his feelings, although he is reportedly bummed out. So we’ll wait to hear from him.

Speaking of youth, Jefferson turned 28 last weekend. He should be at the top of his career, where the wisdom of experience is combined with a still-active body.

Meanwhile, the Nets have become the youngest team in the NBA, or at least will be once they dump Keith Van Horn’s contract, and barring the acquisition of an older player. By Dave D’Alessandro’s calculations, the average age of the active Nets is 24.07 years. Last year, the youngest team in the league was the Trail Blazers, at a little under 24. They were the third youngest team in NBA history. It’s not that a young team can’t succeed. The 2001-02 Nets were the fourth youngest team in the league that year and the youngest team to make the Finals in 25 years, since the all-time youngest Portland Trail Blazers of 1977. Still, nothing says rebuilding like the lack of razors in a locker room.

We gone through the litany of young players before, but imagine this: it is entirely possible that the Nets will at some point field a frontcourt of Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson, all born in 1988 (We are going to accept the official data of the People’s Republic of China on Yi’s passport).

The draft class in fact should be better than the 2001 class that brought the Nets Jefferson, Jason Collins, Brandon Armstrong and Brian Scalabrine. It was that class, like this one, that made that 2001-02 team so young. We particularly like the selection of Anderson and not because he reminds us of a young Van Horn (minus the knee high’s). He was one of our NetsDaily Sleeper picks. The man can shoot, as this highlight reel shows. Lopez is so Jeff Spicoli he promises to be a media star in New York. And Rod Thorn cannot get over how big he is. In two WFAN interviews, he called Lopez "really big", "huge" and "absolutely huge". In his official pre-draft camp measurements, Lopez was 7 foot, one half inch tall in sneakers. No height (or grade) inflation at Stanford.

How does one explain the drop of Chris Douglas-Roberts? Bad workouts? Please. Dave D'Alessandro said CDR's workout with the Nets might have been the best...and the Nets passed on his twice. Unless there is some skeleton the size of The Hulk in his closet, there was no reason for him to get to #40. We don’t care why at this point. If he is as advertised, he'll be one hell of a bargain. We also liked the John Calipari said of the Nets' luck: ''If we would have drafted like that when I was there, I'd still be coaching the Nets.''

Lebron is coming!!!

Don’t believe it. Simply don’t believe it's the sole motivating force behind all the roster moves. The conventional wisdom is that Lebron James and Jay-Z are soooo close the Nets' favorite co-owner will be able to convince the King to set up court at the Barclays Center in 2010. So the team has to get way under the cap. That way they won’t have to do a deal with Cavs to get him.

First of all, it rarely works out that way. After Michael Jordan left the Bulls for the last time, the team of Reinsdorf and Krause thought that hoarding cap room would be the fastest way back to the top. They went nuts, dumping contracts, stockpiling picks, bringing in low-budget role players. Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady would soon be Bulls, they were certain. Instead, it was all soon bull. Neither of those guys wanted to play for a bad team. The Bulls suffered through a period of mediocrity and worse that led them to Derrick Rose Thursday night. Cap Space has yet to score a point in the NBA.

Rebuilding isn’t foolproof said Kiki Vandeweghe earlier this week (in the same interview where he said trading Jefferson "would be difficult for us"…apparently not that difficult.)

Also read what Lebron said about his career plans two weeks ago, which were conveniently lost in the King James-to-Brooklyn hoopla: "I’m dedicated to bringing a championship to this city. I’m bringing a parade to this city. I love this city. I love Northeast Ohio … Right now I can’t see myself going anywhere else." You can latch on to that "right now" condition in his comments or you can take them all at face value. What happens if in 2010 he does bring a parade to Cleveland? You think he is going to walk away from a championship team? Maybe he will, maybe he won't. The point is that a lot can happen in two years and to base all your roster and marketing moves on one linchpin move that far away doesn’t make a lot of sense...at least to us.

So what do we think is going on? A couple of possibilities.

In our most paranoid moments (there are a lot of them lately…gotta renew that prescription), we think the Nets are going through some heavyweight, short-term cost-cutting. The team's losses are mounting…$40 million a year. The team has the heaviest debt-to-assets load of any professional sports team, according to Forbes Magazine. The arena financing picture is murky at best and there are still a few more annoying lawsuits out there to slow everything down. Arguing that the team needs to do this to get Lebron or Chris or Dwyane or Amare is a lot easier to sell than saying Bruce Ratner and his corporate parent, Forest City Enterprises, needs to retrench a bit in the current challenging economic times.

But when we take off our tin foil hat and put on our accountant’s green eyeshade, we see something else afoot, something that has value whether the team gets Lebron or not: Richard Jefferson wasn’t traded for a player or two. He was traded for a country…China.

It's not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive, but Yi, if handled right, presents the Nets with a golden opportunity. Prior to last year’s draft, Ed Stefanski flew to Shanghai and made a pitch for Brooklyn and the Nets to Yi’s handlers, including the Chinese Basketball Association and Team Yi. Eleven teams had been invited. Every team made that pitch understood the value of Yi.

New York has the biggest Chinese population in the United States—and Chinatown is one subway stop away from the site of the Barclays Center. The United States in turn has the largest overseas Chinese population in the world. Chinese and Chinese-American culture is thriving. In Brooklyn alone, there are about 250,000 native-born Chinese, from the Peoples’ Republic, Taiwan and Hong Kong. A full nine percent of the borough’s population was born in China, the largest foreign-born contingent. About 40% of the borough’s population is foreign-born, 949,000 according to the latest census data. How do I know all this? Because it was tucked in the back of "Brooklyn Tomorrow", a glossy magazine produced by by the New York Post but financed largely by Forest City Ratner. I picked up a copy Thursday at lunch. (Where’d I put that tin foil hat again?)

There is money to be made here…and not just in ticket sales, but in corporate suite sales, sponsorships and naming rights, lots of it. And not just by the franchise, but by the players. Nets' games will now be featured on the fifty-plus Chinese TV stations that carry NBA games. There are 300 million Chinese who play basketball and one billion viewers watch NBA games on Chinese television. Some months, the NBA brings in more revenue from China than it does from North America. The numbers are staggering.

Chinese fans will know the names of Devin Harris and Sean Williams and oh yes, that Carter guy who already has a Chinese fan site devoted to him. It almost exploded in delight this week at the pairing of its two favorite players. It's reported that every Houston Rocket but Yao has a Chinese sneaker contract. Shane Battier has taken Mandarin lessons so he can better sell PEAK sportswear…as well he should. His agent has said he makes more from his Chinese endorsements than his American ones. Nice recruiting tool for free agents.

Yi is a huge star in China, with more personality and, yes, better looks than Yao. He is the fourth most popular Chinese celebrity in the latest polling. Yao Ming is first. He is featured in romantic commercials along with the country’s top young starlets. His first Nike commercial made fun of the contrast between the staid old China (Yao) and the new hip-hop China (Yi). He was chosen by the Chinese Red Cross to videotape a plea for donations following the Sichuan earthquake.

Chinese media had writers and producers living in Milwaukee, some of whom will no doubt move to New Jersey and cover the Nets for their local newspapers and television stations. Business publications in Milwaukee and Madison newspapers lamented the trade, noting how Yi was Wisconsin’s link to to the world's fastest growing major economy. People wonder if the Bucks will be able to maintain their Chinese-language website. Will the Nets set one up as well? Already, they have posted a CNN video of him talking about the Olympics, shot in April.

Here’s what Brett Yormark (who knows just a little about marketing) told the New York Times about the possibilities of Yi: "We jumped right on it. We’ve talked to the Bucks and the Rockets so we can learn from their mistakes and, more often, replicate what they did. It opens up a truly new fan base for us. Yi is going to give us the opportunity to be relevant to Asian-American fans in ways we haven’t been before." (And critics of Atlantic Yards should understand that Ratner just got a brand new and powerful constituency in his battle with them.)

Here's the beauty part, the Lebron connection. Lebron James is a huge Nike client. Yi Jianlian is a huge Nike client. Lebron James is very popular in China, so popular in fact that Nike opened a Lebron James Museum in Shanghai last year. China Daily was there to record fans' fevered reactions. If Lebron plays in New York (and last we checked, Brooklyn is part of New York), his Nike contract reportedly includes a 15% kicker.

As John Schuhmann of NBA.com wrote hours after the trade: "if LeBron envisions himself as a global icon, he might see the opportunity to team with Yi, in addition to moving to a larger market, as a wise business move". Who’s a better teammate in that hunt for iconography: Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Yi Jianlain? You figure it out.

Of course, Yi has to prove he can be a major contributor to the Nets. If he becomes a mediocre, deep shooting softie, not much of this will matter. He MUST become a star, he MUST become the next Dirk Nowitzki. The Nets ownership will demand it. The Chinese Basketball Association will too. Good Luck with that, Kiki.

One final note on Yi: the trade will not be complete until he makes a 14,000-mile round trip between Beijing and East Rutherford. Thorn said this week under league rules, no trade is official until all players pass their physicals...or the teams agree to waive physicals. Thorn says the team is making arrangements for the physical. How that will happen within Yi's Olympic training schedule will be a challenge.

Free Agency

This will be a busy week. Starting Tuesday, teams can talk to free agents. Although teams can’t sign a player til July 9, announcements can be made beforehand. A few years ago, Raja Bell and the Suns concluded a deal by July 2.

What’s our thinking about the three Nets’ free agents? We would bet DeSagana Diop is gone back to Dallas. He said all the right things about the Nets during his time here in the winter, but we can’t see the Nets matching a full MLE offer from the Mavs. (see above re mounting losses). We would also bet Boki Nachbar stays and here’s why. With the loss of RJ, the Nets need someone experienced, reliable and tough enough to fill that three spot, either in the starting lineup or off the bench. We didn’t think that way last week.

That leaves us with Nenad Krstic. As Fred Kerber writes in the Post although some are saying the acquisition of Yi makes Krstic superfluous, "they are as similar as Serbia and China," which means not similar at all. The questions will be about playing time and money. Krstic could survey the roster and think he has no chance of getting big money or big minutes, what with the need to play Yi (see above) and the desire to play Lopez. He may just decide to play elsewhere. We get the sneaking suspicion that elsewhere may not be on this side of the Atlantic. We put his chances of staying at less than 50-50, which makes us sad considering what we thought his potential was before he collapsed two Decembers ago.

Beyond that, the names out thrown out there by the beat reporters are very familiar with one exception. Kerber’s list is Warrior Michael Pietrus, Wizard Roger Mason, Clipper Quinton Ross, Pacer Kareem Rush and Knick Fred Jones. D’Alessandro’s is Pietrus and Ross, as well, along with Warrior Matt Barnes, and Magic Keyon Dooling. The exception, says Kerber is that the Nets are targeting J.R. Smith, who is still only 22 years old. A Jersey native who grew up in Clarksburg near Lakewood and played at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark before jumping to the NBA has always been a favorite of Thorn’s. Smith seemed to mature as a person this season and improve his game as well. The Nuggets say they will match any offer for Smith. The Nets are slightly under the cap right now so couldn’t play at the level above the $5.6 million MLE. But maybe Smith wants to come home or wants a Chinese sneaker deal and ask for a sign-and-trade.

Speaking of free agency, we'd like the Nets' brass to clear up the arcane matter of how many trade exceptions they Nets have in their off-season arsenal...and how they got them. Al Iannazzone has long said they have one, a $3.3 million exception that expires at the trade deadline. But this week, D'Alessandro said the team has three: the $3.3 million, plus a $4.2 million exception that expires June 30 (of which year) and one for $3.7 million that expires October 26. TE's can't be combined and individual TE's can't be combined with a player, but you can send out a TE and a draft pick or the draft rights of a player (Christian Drejer?) to secure someone making less than the amount of the exception.

NetsDaily Draft Sleeper of the Week

As noted way above, Ryan Anderson was a NetsDaily Draft Sleeper...the last one as a matter of fact. We had noticed that the entire scouting apparatus went on a road trip to Philly to watch him work out for the Sixers. That's when we figured he was very much in the mix for #21. It turns out someone went to watch him in Washington as well. We named ten sleepers. Of those ten, four were picked in the first round...proud to say Anderson was the highest at #21; two were picked in the second round, three went undrafted and one dropped out.

Final Note

There are few nights as cool in sports as NBA Draft Night. It is, as one poster on SportsTwo said, "it's like Christmas morning!" Lots of subtexts. Here's one we just noticed today. Jonathan Givony in grading each team's performance in the draft suggested that the Nets should have taken Donte Greene over Anderson at #21. He adds: "one of the reasons he even fell here was due to the fact that he got into an argument with a member of their coaching staff in a private workout."

What we are told is that the coach in question was Brian Hill and that Hill repeatedly warned Greene to cut the trash talk during the workout on June 12. Greene was supposedly going after Anthony Randolph hot and heavy. Hardly an argument, though.

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